BOXOFFICE takes a look at the controversy surrounding one of Sundance's biggest hits, Push: Based on the Novel by Sapphire.

'Push' and Shove

on February 05, 2009 by Ray Greene

For those of us who attended Sundance this year, where Lee Daniels’ adaptation of an Oprah-sanctified novel of inner city struggle under the fulsome title Push: Based on the Novel by Sapphire received a virtual coronation (but was not acquired), the last 24 hours have been amusing. The New York Times ran a piece yesterday under the cart-before-the-horse title of “Wrenching Film Poses Marketing Challenge,” about how “eyebrows arched all over Hollywood” over Lionsgate’s allegedly reckless acquisition last Monday of Push: Sapphire for $5.5 million – or peanuts, given that the marketing cost on a $5 home movie if it were put through today’s TV-and-web-reliant pipeline would add $20 million of expense to any pricetag.

Push: Sapphire is in fact a far surer bet than many an art movie, because it’s already established itself as a reviews-driven critical favorite – the very strategy that allowed the admittedly more crowd-pleasing Slumdog Millionaire to find an audience and almost certain Oscar glory. But recessionary Hollywood is behaving like recessionary Washington by suddenly reclaiming its fiscal virginity after the spree of the last twenty or so years, and so studios who used to use Sundance to engage in mad bidding wars to see who would get to lose the most millions on Happy Texas, Care of the Spitfire Grill, Son of Rambow and The Castle are suddenly shocked, shocked to see another company open its checkbook wide enough to get a mid six figures pay-slip into some producer/director’s hand. If NYT is to be believed, Lionsgate is being tsked at from every direction – and this despite the fact that the studio’s low-budget cash cow Tyler Perry is ALREADY promoting Push: Sapphire to anyone who’ll listen to him, including Oprah herself, who, like Perry, has seen the film and promised to support it when it comes out.

It could be argued that any studio that’s grossed as many hundreds of millions on Tyler Perry theatrical and DVD product as Lionsgate has is already behaving in its own best interest by keeping their urban auteur satisfied. It could also be argued that, as I believe Irving Thalberg used to insist, sometimes a successful movie company needs to risk losing money on something unique, because it helps the whole medium move forward just a little bit. But it turns out neither of these arguments need to be made.

Because if Push: Sapphire is such a guaranteed box office loser, why did we get another big headline for this little film? It seems that as of today (Feb. 5), Lionsgate and the Weinstein Company are suing each other over who gets to distribute the picture. Allegedly, Lionsgate filed first in L.A. in order to protect their deal when the Weinsteins started claiming they had a “firm agreement” with the film’s producers. The Weinsteins counter-sued in New York.

Whatever the merits or outcome of the legal battles, it seems pretty clear that some major players in what’s left of the indie marketplace are trying to elbow each other out of the way to get their hands on this dark, disturbing but brilliantly acted picture. If the spectacle of Lionsgate and the Weinsteins in courtroom battle goes on for long enough, maybe Daniels will just have to change the name of his picture. To Shove.

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